That time Muhammad Ali knocked out an opponent for public TV prime time

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(Photo: benyupp/Flickr)

Just as he knocked out opponents in the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali once knocked out a competitor in public broadcasting in an unprecedented face-to-face matchup.

In 2002, years after The Greatest retired and his body had declined with the onset of Parkinson’s, programmers at PBS and a key group of stations scheduled two different programs for the same day. An Ali documentary and the eight-hour series Evolution were both set to broadcast May 14. The oversight led to a match-up between programs.

Perhaps it wasn’t a fair fight. Evolution first aired in September 2001, and the attacks of Sept. 11 disrupted the broadcasts. PBS and producing station WGBH wanted to give the series another shot. They geared the second release toward science educators, whom they hoped would include it in curricula.

Meanwhile, major-market stations bought the two-hour Ali documentary with hopes of boosting viewership during Nielsen’s May sweeps period. Some had already begun promoting the high-priced program, the British-made Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World, which they acquired through distributor American Public Television.

As Current reported in April 2002, the scheduling conflict caused a stir among the programs’ proponents:

Partisans for the two programs joined battle on public TV’s e-mail system after WGBH and PBS pressed stations for better timeslots for Evolution. A classic example of a serious mission-serving science documentary was competing for carriage with an engaging, celebrity-riddled story of an immensely popular and historic public figure.

In other words, it was a bit of a pileup.

Granted, the landscape of public broadcasting has changed since then. A similar crash collision is unlikely to happen today. Programmers don’t typically have as much to spend on programs as they did before the recession.

But with his funeral Friday, it’s fitting to remember The People’s Champion’s public TV matchup. At the time, program and broadcast directors denied that stations deliberately chose Ali over Evolution and cited other reasons for not carrying the science series. Ali was a mission-oriented program that also attracted a large audience.

Still, whether in the boxing ring or in the field of public opinion, Ali knew how to win a fight.

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